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The darkly funny Marion Bridge is on at The Gladstone

By Brian Carroll on February 17, 2015

130 minutes (including one intermission) / Drama | Parental Guidance

The striking first impression of this production is how good the casting is. Robin Guy, Shawna Pasini and Cindy Beaton are immediately believable as sisters Agnes, Theresa and Louise.

The MacKeigan sisters (hard-drinking actress Agnes, teetotaling nun Theresa and television-addicted, unemployed Louise) are gathered in their maternal home to prepare for their mother’s impending death from lung cancer.

While the three sisters shared a common nurture, nature has given them dramatically different personalities. Their differences, with each other and with their divorced parents, have driven them apart: Agnes to a failing acting career in Toronto, Theresa to a convent farm and Louise to an evangelical prayer group.

These differences were then magnified by events outside their mother’s home. Agnes became pregnant by one of the local feckless ne’er-do-wells. Out of shame, her mother shipped her to a distant convent to have the child out of sight and out of mind of the neighbours. The child was put up for adoption without consulting Agnes.

Amongst the tumult of fighting parents and siblings, Theresa became the peacemaker. This led to her calling as a nun.

Unable to relate to her peers in town, Louise returned home after the parents’ divorce. She is taking care of their mother, but Louise schedules escapes into the world of television make-believe.

Daniel MacIvor sets the planets in motion for a battle-familiale among the three sisters, the dying mother, the estranged father and his bimbo second wife. MacIvor then forces the characters to interact at close quarters. The resulting sparks reveal depths in the characters that would otherwise remain hidden.

The combined stresses of their mother’s terminal illness and the tight quarters of her small house force the sisters to engage. As they do so, they discover long ignored commonalities. Agnes discovers the whereabouts of her lost child. This discovery stirs maternal feelings which give her an interest in helping Louise develop social connections. Theresa tries to develop a rapprochement between Agnes and their mother. Their mother, in turn, encourages her daughters to break their estrangement with their father.

And the sparks definitely fly … much to the entrancement and humour of the audience. Even Theresa and Agnes feel the attractive pull of Louise’s off-stage television (voiced by Vivian and Paul Melsniss).

MacIvor has taken ordinary people, and put them in a pressure-cooker of out of the ordinary circumstance. The results captivated the opening night audience, who twice spontaneously applauded before the end of the show. They excitedly chatted about the experience during intermission. Then they took their drinks back into the theatre early in eager anticipation of the second half.

Speaking of intermission, Agnes knocks back a significant amount of alcohol on stage in the first half. This boded well for intermission bar sales. You might want to place your bar order for intermission before the play starts. Also, the bar is offering a special cocktail to accompany the play: a North Sydney Fog. Had I not been reviewing, I’d have tried one.

MacIvor’s script bubbles with dark humour and wit: Agnes declares that “Ladies don’t get drunk; they relax.” But humour alone is not sufficient to make a MacIvor play work. Bronwyn Steinberg’s direction keeps up the pace, without appearing rushed. She spurs the characters on as they clash with each other. Their dated perceptions and memories of each other put them in conflict because they can’t, or won’t, listen to each other. Only when they actually start to listen does Steinberg relax the pace.

Andrea Steinwand’s simple set makes the flow of the action appear natural and spontaneous. Stage management by Hilary Nichol and Sarah Neiman is seamless.

Fans of The Gladstone’s Radio Plays will recognize the vocals of Cindy Beaton and Robin Guy as two-thirds of “The Gladstone Sisters”. Shawna Pasini joins them in gorgeous harmonies with appropriate songs interspersed throughout the production.

While Marion Bridge is very different from many other MacIvor plays, this production has audience appeal to rival such disparate offerings as Wild AbandonHouseHere Lies Harry and This is a Play.

Students of theatre should not be fooled. Three Sisters Theatre makes it look easy to put on a MacIvor play. Let me assure them that it’s hard work to make a performance appear so easy and natural.

I saw only two slightly awkward mis-steps on stage on opening night. If I’d blinked, I’d have missed them. This production is well-rehearsed, and needed no previews to prepare for opening night.

Brilliant casting, consistently believable acting, well-paced direction, a darkly funny but dramatic script, and gorgeous harmonies! Who says February in Ottawa has to be boring?

Marion Bridge by Three Sisters Theatre Company is playing at The Gladstone Theatre. Wednesday to Saturday, February 11-14 and 17-21 at 7:30PM. Matinees Saturday February 14th and 21st, and Sunday February 15th at 2:30PM. Tickets are $28 (including HST) for adults, senior and student tickets are $23.